Fox began 2019 with The Masked Singer, a disturbing phenomenon that felt like the sort of programming that would exist in the Hunger Games universe. But whether or not all of television will eventually bend to The Masked Singer’s twisted will, Fox has currently pivoted from one WTF competition show to another. What could be a worthy follow-up to a singing competition in which washed celebrities perform under demonic costumes for a panel of C-list judges? Well, how about Rob Lowe, a gigantic robot arm, and an “obstacle course for the mind”?
That is the basic pitch for Mental Samurai, which debuted Tuesday night and has now comfortably taken up residence in the darkest corners of my mind, right next to Elizabeth Holmes’s “would you like to buy my blood stuff” voice. Mental Samurai combines the prototypical quiz-show premise with … one of those giant mechanical claws that grabs toys at video arcades—for reasons. But to explain the weirdness that comprises the world of Mental Samurai is not an easy task.
First thing: Why “Samurai”? Honestly, I don’t have a clue. There is nothing we’ve seen in the premiere that correlates to medieval Japan’s elite warrior class. My best guess is that the series’ brain trust decided—appropriately—that calling a winning contestant a “Mental Samurai” sounds slightly cooler than something like “Mental Ninja,” “Mental Viking,” or “Mental Magus.”
So here’s how the show works: Contestants are required to answer 12 questions in five minutes, four from each “Tower of Samurai” category: knowledge, memory, puzzles, and sequencing. A single wrong question, and the person is eliminated. All the while, they are tossed around by the giant robot arm, in an effort to spike their heart rate and encourage rash, quiz-related decision-making. If someone succeeds at this 12-question gantlet, they move on to the “Circle of Samurai,” which also sounds cool, but is basically just the exact same process, in which they answer four additional questions—one from each “tower”—in 90 seconds, with the opportunity to win a grand total of $100,000 (and the official title of “Mental Samurai,” which is priceless).
The robot arm, meanwhile, is called Ava, and has the basic speaking functions of an Amazon Echo, which is not at all foreboding. Ava is, quite simply, the freakiest part of this show—she (she?) definitely has the potential to take over mankind, one strapped-in contestant at a time. If you think I’m overthinking this machine’s apocalyptic robo-might, Ava is also the name of Alicia Vikander’s A.I. character in Ex Machina. Rob Lowe will say things like “start the clock, Ava” and she will oblige, but how long until Ava decides not to open the proverbial pod bay doors? For the sake of humanity’s future, we must remain observant toward all things Ava.
Once Lowe gets through explaining the setup, Mental Samurai goes through the familiar motions of a competition series. Contestants are introduced and provide brief bios explaining their motivations for competing—one person flunked out of Stanford and wants to prove to their parents that it wasn’t a waste of time (lol!); another person is doing it in honor of their late mother, who loved puzzles—before moving on to their samurai-themed challenge. What might be most interesting about Mental Samurai is just how easy the questions seem, yet in the premiere, only one contestant made it through all 12 questions unscathed. One contestant—a former MLB pitcher, Donovan Hand—was asked to memorize a very simple sentence that included the word “Cabo,” and within five seconds incorrectly picked “Cancun” from a trio of answers. (The audience groaned, loudly, as they should have; he was in the Mental Samurai equivalent of an 0-2 count!)
Watching a competition series, you often get the temptation to be like, I could’ve solved that. And yeah, Mental Samurai gives off that impression. But I’m inclined to believe that getting strapped into the definitely malevolent Ava has some adverse effects on the psyche. Your adrenaline would probably be pumping if you were competing on a quiz-show with tons of money on the line; now imagine going through that in a whirling contraption that feels like the twisted, incentive-based version of an astronaut prepping for a space flight. (A former astronaut, by the way, actually competed in the episode, and, no joke, was embarrassingly booted after getting the first question wrong. He tried to save face by saying, “I thought spaceflight was hard,” but that only made it worse.)
But the familiar rhythms of Mental Samurai—combined with the fact that it’s frustrating as all hell to watch contestants mess up easy questions—doesn’t make the show all that compelling. It’s probably the most “extreme” quiz show out there by virtue of Ava, but considering what machines are capable of doing to consenting humans at amusement parks, the whirling mechanical arm is relatively tame. Unfortunately, the best way to enjoy Mental Samurai would be to actually compete and become familiar with Ava—and that’s an experience only a lucky few will be able to enjoy.
So while Mental Samurai is definitely weird as hell, the best thing it will elicit from you is sheer terror when Rob Lowe tells Ava to give a winning contestant a “victory lap.” From there you wait with bated breath to see whether the robot will take this moment to assert its dominance over our species.